By the time of its arrival, the book titled Freedom was, ironically enough, weighted with baggage. Ten days before its official US release, media organisations reported that President Barack Obama had been spotted with a copy of the novel while on summer holiday at Martha’s Vineyard. These reports led to a frenzy of internet commentary as booksellers and eager readers asserted their right to buy a book which hadn’t yet been released. Their indignation was exacerbated when the New York Times published not one but two glowing, early reviews, praising the novel’s ‘limning prose’ and declaring it a ‘masterpiece of American fiction’. Not to be outdone, Time magazine named Jonathan Franzen the ‘Great American Novelist’ and made him the first writer in ten years to grace their cover. Tiring of these plaudits, the best-selling author Jodi Picoult set Twitter aflutter by noting the New York Times’ preference for ‘white male literary darlings’. Fellow chick-litter Jennifer Weiner followed suit, coining the hashtag ‘#Franzenfreude’ to describe the experience of ‘taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen’. When, at last, Freedom was released, it entered the New York Times’ bestseller list at number one.
Fame is both a blessing and a curse. This is especially true for the author of literary fiction, a genre with a peculiar capacity to turn market failure into evidence of artistic credibility. ‘Nobody is rich enough to pay us,’ Flaubert once quipped, inaugurating the long artistic tradition of ‘keepin’ it real’. Like other writers of his period, Flaubert sought to distinguish his literary output from that of his competitors by claiming he worked without concern for the marketplace. His was a kind of literary aristocracy that – in word, if not in deed – paid no heed to the existence of an audience. The reality, as true today as it was then, is that novelists not only want to earn a living but, by the very nature of their art, need an audience on the other side of the story.
Jonathan Franzen first attracted a wave of intense press and public interest in 2001, when he offended Oprah Winfrey by expressing reservations about the selection of his earlier novel The Corrections for ‘Oprah’s Book Club’. On that occasion, the author made a series of incautious public statements that revealed him to be not only a media naïf but also his own worst enemy. First he described himself as a writer ‘solidly in the high-art tradition’, and then admitted he found some of Oprah’s Book Club selections ‘schmaltzy’. His qualifications just made matters worse: he was ambivalent about having Oprah’s logo superimposed on the cover since it was, after all, his work, not hers (this, despite the fact his novel was plastered with the National Book Award stamp of approval); and he pondered whether the endorsement of a daytime talk-show host might dissuade some readers (especially male readers) from picking up a copy. Commentators chastised Franzen for his elitism, double standards and lack of good grace. All in all, the author delivered a tour de force of public embarrassment, giving his detractors every opportunity to exercise their literary schadenfreude.
The excitement surrounding Freedom was whether the author would make the same mistake. Franzenfreude may be a neologism to make even the most stoic German weep, but it neatly captures the guilty pleasure perpetuated in the literary world by a backlash. Certainly the comments of Picoult and Weiner drew on Franzen’s fractious past, and it didn’t take long for the bloggers to begin speculating on the odds of Oprah extending another invitation. Seeing the swiftly departing bandwagon, even Newsweek jumped aboard, wondering, ‘Is Jonathan Franzen the author we love to hate?’ But, given Franzen’s track record for media blunders and shaming spectacle, a better question might be: ‘Is Jonathan Franzen the author Jonathan Franzen loves to hate?’
Back in 1996, while he laboured to pen the novel that would become The Corrections, Franzen wrote at length about his ‘hunger for a large audience’ and his thankless ‘obligation to the mainstream’. That essay, entitled ‘Perchance to Dream’, was the author’s analysis of the relationship between literary production and media culture, and in it he lamented that the novelist was ‘irrelevant in an age of electronic democracy’. Franzen extemporised on the phenomenon of the visible author and, with what must now cause him more than a twinge of hubris, cited Time magazine’s coverage of literature as emblematic: where once the magazine had devoted its cover to James Joyce, it now favoured Stephen King. ‘Time, which not long ago aspired to shape the national taste, now serves mainly to reflect it,’ he wrote. The objection had less to do with the aesthetics of King’s fiction than with the fact that it was his already established visibility that made him cover-worthy. Most distressing for Franzen was how this affected his own writing: ‘Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?’
For Franzen, ‘the culture’ was a party to which he wasn’t invited and, having been snubbed, he convinced himself he never really wanted to attend. Despite his alienation, however, ‘Perchance to Dream’ resolves with Franzen persisting because, he realises, it is not culture but literature that constitutes the real party; an intimate event between reader and writer, ‘via print … a way out of loneliness’. Surely, then, a knock on the door from Winfrey, one of the world’s most influential (and engaged) readers would, perchance, be just that dream Franzen entertained? With such an enormous community of readers assured, why did the novelist pull away from the public? Having spent more than a decade seeking that coveted invite, Franzen (first time around) fulfilled his ambition only to wind up acting like a grade-A jerk. To see the author now, looking grief-stricken on the cover of Time, is to see a newly minted public man caught in a moment of uncertainty about this second chance; an Oprah-style opportunity for a ‘do-over’. So, what changed?
‘Who reads?’ Franzen lamented in ‘Perchance to Dream’, despairing of the distractions of our culture. A better question today might be: ‘Who reads Time?’ In the years between that essay and Freedom, the internet has generated myriad new ways of representing, consuming and producing novels and novelists. In the era of the author promotional video, Amazon rankings and Twitter feeds, authors have multimedia platforms. Readership, likewise, has changed, becoming an activity that only partially involves reading. Interactivity and instantaneous responses make literature much more than the experience of being alone with a novel. Book clubs, writers’ festivals, blogs and online forums all comprise the practice of modern readership. Franzen is not blind to any of this and Freedom is packed with evidence of these changes to the ways private individuals engage with culture. His characters deftly manage iPods, text messages, blogs and video uploads, they speculate about indie cred and liberal guilt. They have strong opinions on Karl Rove, Tupac and the White Stripes. Franzen gets what it’s like to be ‘into’ things; he knows that there is a value system behind the distinction that one thing doesn’t suck as much as another. But none of that moves him past the fact that what he once called ‘the age of electronic democracy’ makes him uneasy.
Franzen has never been shy about his ambition to write himself into the role of chronicler of the contemporary American middle class. As much as he writes of matters relevant to those lives, he also writes in order to matter to them. Franzen’s is a one-man mission to write literature that will, as he says, ‘engage with the culture’. By ‘engagement’ he means both content (the writing of social-realist novels that take modern life as their subject) and effect (writing that absorbs readers). But the duality also offers a third revelation: Franzen is very particular about his definitions.
In the 1990s, from his position on the fringes of literary acclaim, Franzen believed his work failed to engage because the journalists interviewing him never seemed to read past page 20, and because the young people he spoke to favoured non-linear reading on the internet. Worse still, potential novel readers now seemed to prefer Zoloft, multiculturalism and communication technologies as curatives to their psychic ills. Whatever it was that Franzen regarded as ‘mainstream relevance’ somehow failed to include most of the activities that average Americans engage in every day (morning TV and radio, the internet, magazines, mundane chat) – which seemed something of an oversight for a writer with his eyes trained on middle-class America.
It is telling that Franzen borrowed the title of his essay from Hamlet, since his perspective was as clouded as the Dane’s. ‘Perchance to Dream’ offers an account of a young novelist preoccupied by uncertainty at how best to proceed, a predicament seriously affecting his relationship to everyday life. Like Hamlet, Franzen was haunted by a paternal figure (the Great American Novelist who ‘matters to the culture’). His dream was of a time when Time meant something; Franzen was nostalgic for an era when a novelist could write a culturally engaged masterwork and eat his celebrity cake, too. Instead, ‘the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.’
An unashamed appetite for large audiences should not be taken as a guarantee of one’s talents as a public figure. Hunger does not necessarily make a great chef. It’s true that the connection between author and reader is paramount to the novelist, but public interaction is not integral to the work of novel writing. Instead, it comes as an afterthought, often at the encouragement of a publisher keen to deploy the mystique of authorship (all that enigmatic ‘alone time’) into a promotional device. When The Corrections was published, for instance, much was made of Franzen’s revelation that he had written sections of the novel blindfolded to avoid any possible distraction from his labours.
This kind of social withdrawal fulfils popular expectations of what it means to be a novelist: individuals who endure self-enforced seclusion in order to more wholly concentrate their powers on the society they have devoted their lives to exploring. The now mythic, tragic private lives of some of last century’s Great American Novelists (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner) ably illustrate the alienating consequences of too much time on one’s own: feelings of insecurity and irrelevance, jealousy, loss of perspective, obsession, habituation, depression. This fate is underscored by the bitter irony that the novelist endures such deprivations with the aim of reaching out to readers; in withdrawing, however, novelists become unwilling to emerge. The novelist is the archetypal kid in the corner, the date who won’t dance.
The contradictions of alienated authorship are made ever more apparent in the rituals of flesh-pressing that are part of the presentday promotion cycle for authors: book tours, signings and interviews. Even the virtual connections established online via author videos, blogs and networking sites stress the social dimension to authorship. The publishing industry aims to transform authors and novels into networked multimedia. Franzen wants to ‘matter’ to this culture but has some trouble with the fact that ‘mattering’ is, in part, exemplified by the kinds of communication networks and readership habits that make him feel disempowered and uncomfortable. ‘The writer for whom nothing matters but the printed word is, ipso facto, untelevisable,’ he once grumbled. But don’t misread the sentiment here. Franzen isn’t untelevisable. He cares about a great deal more than the printed word. He is, after all, a novelist preoccupied by relationships and the rendering of difficult emotions. If it’s possible to speak of a ‘writer’s writer’ (one for whom nothing but the printed word matters) then Franzen is better described as a ‘reader’s writer’: an author for whom the connection between writer and reader is everything.
Franzen’s long-time friend, the late novelist David Foster Wallace, once explained the feeling of being an author in contemporary culture as ‘like there’s a party going on that [we] haven’t been invited to – we’re all alienated. I think the guys who write directly about and at the present culture tend to be writers who find their artistic invalidation especially painful.’ As much as Franzen wanted to join the party, wanted public attention, wrote unashamedly of his ‘hunger for a large audience’, he was completely unprepared for what that would involve.
His adversarial complaints about logos, readerships, cable TV, the internet and book clubs were a patent illustration of his discomfort with the audience. Early critical responses to Freedom have noted the presence of an aging indie rocker called Richard Katz who expresses a similar reticence. Katz is critically feted but popularly ignored until he accidentally produces a hit record and finds himself at the mercy of his many fans. Although the attention brings rewards, it mostly makes him disdainful of himself and his audience. At least when (almost) no one was listening he never had to worry about what others thought. Katz doesn’t want to feel the pulsing embrace of public media culture, taking solace instead in his day job as a carpenter (the honourable craftsman, not the duplicitous artist). It’s revealing that, despite the gloom to be found in his essays, Franzen’s fiction affirms the bonds between people – and Freedom is nothing if not an extended meditation on the conflicted feelings engendered by such bonds. His essays, collected in books bearing titles indicative of their author’s attitude (How To Be Alone, The Discomfort Zone) were love letters to his own alienation, resentment and obsolescence. From readers’ perspectives, he might well have put them between a cover emblazoned with the words Fuck You! and been done with it. But now Freedom has given the author a little of his own.
In an excruciating three-minute author video for Freedom, Franzen talks for over a minute about how uncomfortable he is with the idea of author videos. He notes how video disturbs the ‘still place’ of reading but then pragmatically acknowledges that ‘a lot of commerce happens online today so it makes good sense to be recording little videos like this’. And it’s not just little videos either: Franzen, after all the bloggers’ mirth and speculation, has accepted the olive branch proffered by Winfrey, agreeing to discuss Freedom with Oprah’s Book Club. He concedes now that ‘little videos’ and talk shows have to matter to any author who believes that literature matters to the culture. Contrary to the lonely dream of authorship to which he devoted himself for so long, Franzen’s new outlook suggests that it may not have been the culture that abandoned the novelist but the novelist too quick to abandon the culture.